The Battle of the Minnesota River Basin: How 41 Cities Are Challenging Regulations

With untold millions in upgrade costs on the line, 41 cities in the Minnesota River Basin are telling the state its proposed phosphorus reduction standards don't make sense.
The Battle of the Minnesota River Basin: How 41 Cities Are Challenging Regulations

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A coalition of Minnesota municipalities awaits response to a letter they’ve sent to the governor and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency stating that proposed phosphorus standards for the Minnesota River Basin will cost too much and yield little or no results.

Daniel Marx is associate attorney with the firm of Flaherty & Hood (St. Paul) which represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) and the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board (MESERB) of which many of the cities are members. He says the letter lays out technical and legal concerns about the proposed standard, and requests a meeting with the governor and the MPCA to discuss the issue and collaborate on a better solution.

Marx says the group is hoping for a timely response to its letter, which was mailed Jan. 31.


The letter was signed by 41 of the 147 Minnesota cities in the basin, many of which have already implemented phosphorus control technology at their wastewater treatment plants.

 “Many of these communities already are already meeting phosphorus standards of 1 mg/L or less in their wastewater discharges,” Marx says. “The proposed regulations will be significantly more restrictive and require substantial upgrades.”

Furthermore, end-of-pipe point sources account for less than 10 percent of the phosphorus discharged into the river basin, Marx explains. “The proposed regulations won’t lead to attainment of the water quality standards and will have minimal impact on reducing algal growth in the river (which is the objective of the proposed new rule),” he says. “There are other sources of phosphorus. Is this the best approach to helping the river? Modeling suggests it won’t have a significant impact.”

Mankato a leader

Mankato is a leader in the coalition of cities, largely because its wastewater treatment plant awaits a new permit. “The new permit (with more stringent phosphorus limits) could have a drastic effect on us,” says public utilities director Mary Fralish.

There are several reasons for disputing the proposed rules, according to Fralish.

“The new guidance manual (on phosphorus) should have been the subject of public notice and comment, and it wasn’t,” she says. Plus, she says the new River Eutrophication Standards are based on critical 15-year low summer flows in the river, not average flows, and on the highest discharge flows from the treatment plant.

“They’re basing the new standards on situations which would rarely exist simultaneously,” Fralish says.  “Plus, they’re not including the last few years of data which include reductions already made by municipalities in the watershed.”

Gary Schreifels, public works director at Glencoe, echoes that last statement. “Our permit expired in 2013,” he says. “We discharge about 3 mg/L now and expect a new permit would require us to spend between $2-3 million to get down to 1.5 mg/L.”

He says the potential new limit is based on old data, taken in the receiving stream before other plants started reducing phosphorus in their discharges.

“Other treatment plants have already started removing phosphorus, but the MPCA didn’t consider these reductions in analyzing the receiving stream.”

Schreifels says Glencoe is planning a $20 million upgrade to its entire treatment train, and that the additional expense for phosphorus removal would yield only a “little bang for the buck.”

Trading program

Attorney Marx also points out that the proposed rules would essentially destroy a phosphorus trading program set up 10 years ago to allow smaller communities to obtain phosphorus credits from larger wastewater treatment utilities.

“We want to be as clear as we can be that we’re not trying to get rid of regulations,” says Marx. “We’d like to meet with cities, agricultural interests, and environmental groups, and rethink the approach to the Minnesota River basin. The proposed regulation is going to be very expensive and will not work.

“We have no problem investing additional resources to find a fair and effective way to clean the river. We understand more will be required, but we want to make sure these resources are targeted to actually benefit the river. The MPCA approach would spend a lot of money that could be used more effectively to clean the Minnesota River.”

Mankato’s Fralish concludes that regulating all the way down to zero phosphorus effluent wouldn’t even make a difference.

“As de minimis contributors, all municipalities could go to a zero phosphorus discharge and the algal levels in the river would not change,” he says.


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